Stars: Aubrey Plaza, Christopher Abbott, Sarah Gadon
Actor-writer turned director Levine’s third picture is a boldly experimental meta-tale with dashes of pitch black comedy and Lynchian dread.
In the first half, titled ‘The Bear in the Road’, couple Gabe (Abbott) and Blair (Gadon) are visited in their lakeside house by Allison (Plaza), an actress looking for inspiration for a forthcoming directorial project. Ex-Brooklynite Gabe has inherited the house from his parents and the couple have relocated there since Blair became pregnant. Back in Brooklyn both were archetypal struggling artists, he a musician and she a dancer. As Gabe and Blair tear strips out of each other in front of their guest it becomes clear that Gabe is attracted to Allison. Far from seeming awkward, Allison seems to revel in their discomfort, and switches sides to agitate them further.
Part two ‘The Bear by the Boat House’ suggests that the previous events were part of a film shoot, with Gabe as the director and Allison and Blair as the lead actresses, although the roles of downtrodden wife and visiting outsider have been reversed. Gabe, it emerges, is playing psychological games with his cast and manipulating them to maximise their performances.
This is a dark and elusive exploration of gender relations via the prism of the creative process which sees Levine and his cast skilfully shifting from one register to another as events swerve unexpectedly. Plaza is particularly impressive here, even with a script that frequently equates emotional self-flagellation with daring and fearless acting, her performance not so much a departure, but skilful refinement of her usual sarcastic persona. The relentlessly sour tone and narrative rug-pulling however become a little wearing as the picture leads to a histrionic climax.
Black Bear is available to stream from 23 April.
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